Are Those Toys Safe, Ducky?

By Christina Elston

child safety - safe ducky

Safe Ducky founder Josh Kasteler tests toys and other products at Safe Ducky member stores, including Caro Bambino in Santa Monica, for toxic substances that could harm children. PHOTO COURTESY SAFE DUCKY

The baby board book, featuring lots of colors and textures meant to stimulate developing brains, was labeled “organic.” Josh Kasteler tested it anyway, and found that the packaging contained such a high level of phthalates – chemicals widely believed to disrupt hormone levels – that it contaminated the book as well.

Kasteler, a biochemist and molecular biologist who founded Santa Monica-based Safe Ducky ( in June, tests toys and other children’s products for dangerous toxins and removes them from shelves at Safe Ducky member stores. He and Safe Ducky employees check for government-regulated toxins, wielding equipment that uses X-rays to screen for lead, cadmium and other heavy metals, and infrared light to check for chemicals such as phthalates (most commonly found in plastics).

Kasteler says that buying only wooden or organic toys, or products made in the U.S., isn’t a guarantee of child safety. “I have found all of those products to be toxic in one shape or form,” he says. A wooden toy could be coated with paint that contains lead, or made of wood combined with another material that contains phthalates. A product labeled “Made in U.S.A.” could be assembled from parts manufactured elsewhere. The manufacturer of a child’s jacket might mistakenly have used buttons that contain lead.

When Safe Ducky screens a store, they check products most likely to pose a hazard to children based on the manufacturer, how the product will be used, the age of the child it is intended for, and other factors. Safe Ducky revisits stores every three to six months, or whenever they become aware of a problem product.

“Every store that I’ve looked at, I’ve found a toxic product,” Kasteler says. When he does, he contacts the supplier or manufacturer and in most cases they appreciate receiving the news. Safe Ducky has certified eight stores thus far, and also offers home screenings.

Kasteler says his goal is to empower families, and the Safe Ducky website includes a wealth of information about harmful substances found in consumer products, and a listing of Safe Ducky member stores. “I’m trying to get real, scientific information into the hands of consumers,” says Kasteler. “For people who care, here is the information.”

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